This post is part of a series about Cornerstone Theater Company's California Bridge Tour, the culmination of our work with ten communities over the past ten years through our Institute Summer Residency Program. Cornerstone's touring production California: The Tempest celebrates and unites these ten communities onstage, in the audiences, and in the content and themes of the play's script and design. This series uses the communities as jumping off points to share thinking and experiences specific to the project, as well as Cornerstone's longtime practice of creating community-based theater.
I’m sitting in the Buddhist Church activity room in Fowler, CA. It’s a Saturday afternoon and the sun’s rays are pouring into a room that Cornerstone Theater Company has appropriated to be an office/cafeteria/rehearsal space. I am one of about twenty people sitting in the weathered metal folding chairs. At this community conversation we, Cornerstone, invite the wonderful people of the Fowler community to speak about their experience working on this iteration of California: The Tempest. Sitting in the circle, I am feverishly taking notes on the conversation and battling with a swell of emotion rising in my chest. You see, second Saturdays on tour are the quintessence of bittersweet. I think this is a statement that every person involved on the tour of California: The Tempest would agree with. It is bittersweet because tonight is closing night in Fowler and within twenty-four hours most of us will be home.
The touring company has been on the road for six weeks and we are at the end of the second leg of our state-wide tour. There is an inescapable fatigue that sets into your bones when you’re on the road for that length of time. On this tour, the hours are long, the demands are high, and the work can be draining: physically, mentally, and emotionally. The prospect of lying in one’s own bed and seeing the familiar faces of loved ones is a very sweet one indeed.
However, a melancholy weighs heavy on me this afternoon because, in the short span of two weeks, those of us who have traveled to Fowler have come to make a home of sorts in this pearl of a community. We’ve walked her streets, eaten her food, taken over her park, and forged relationships within the ranks of her community. The thirty-odd individuals from Fowler who have volunteered their energy and time to rehearse for this production are genuinely excited for opening night. They are ready to perform. Heck, they are old pros by now. It is exciting to witness the transformation, and see people who in some cases have never acted in a play before take ownership and pride in theatremaking. If only we could stay longer, then we could get to know our new friends a little bit better and have another performance or two or five. I know that I will miss this place and the people who have come to mean much in such a short amount of time.
Audra, sitting to my right in the circle, speaks up about what she wants to see when Cornerstone comes back for our Fowler reunion in the future. She is from Fowler, born and raised, ready to try anything: a smiling bundle of warmth who proudly teaches sixth grade. She expresses her desire for Cornerstone to teach more workshops to her students when they return. Her kids would love any workshop taught by artists from LA because for them LA is Hollywood. I giggle. I thought the exact same thing when I was younger and Cornerstone came to my hometown.
I go back in time to 2009 and I’m in my first Cornerstone circle in a community space very much like the one in Fowler but back home—my home, Eureka, CA. I was sixteen, doey-eyed, filled with emotion, and excited to be cast in a play with a professional theatre company from Los Angeles! I would later come to understand that this crazy wonderful group of theatre artists was called Cornerstone Theater Company and that they made their own special brand of “community engaged theatre.” Our Eureka story was captured in Cornerstone’s production of Jason in Eureka. In a perfect blend of the realistic and the fantastical that is so Eureka, playwright Peter Howard adapted the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts to encapsulate the multifaceted uniqueness of Eureka. I remember being in awe of the way that the company did theatre. They were not interested in what experience (or lack) that I had as a young actress. They were interested in my story and genuinely wondered about the place that I lived. They asked me what were the struggles that I had experienced and what made my hometown special. No one had ever asked me these questions. I had never asked myself these questions before. For the first time, I looked around the place that I lived with a critical and artistic eye. This insight allowed me to take real ownership of where I lived instead of thinking of my hometown as a default of circumstances. I was amazed that this sense of possession came through making theatre. I discovered there are powerful effects that theatre can have on not just the people in the audience but on the space and community where it is created.
California: The Tempest has visited six towns over the past eight months. I have been through a transformation myself from a local cast member in 2009 to a touring member of the acting ensemble on this massive bridge tour. I have the best job in the world. I get to bring to life the funny and beautiful words of playwright Alison Carey, share my theatre know-how with every local cast, and find the best ways to help them succeed in their performances. The most rewarding part of my job is getting to know the individuals that make up these communities and getting a feel for the place that they call home: a powerful sunset across the vast skies in Salinas, the vista of almond and apricot trees surrounding Grayson and Westley, the smell of tamales, gasoline, and pavement in Pacoima. I’ve been gifted a beautiful tapestry of images, memories, and relationships that I can bring into my future.
Cornerstone is returning to Eureka with me in tow to do the seventh iteration of California: The Tempest in May. With my return home imminent, I am like an anxious child on my way to the first day of school, all filled with nervous anticipation. How will the version of California: The Tempest be different? What new treasures, issues, and stories will arise about my hometown? How will my job be different when I know the streets, restaurants, and feel of the community where we’ll be performing? One thing is for sure. I can’t wait to emulate the courtesy, curiosity, and consideration that I was treated with when I was a local cast member. It is a rare opportunity to experience such powerful role reversal from a star-struck teenager in awe of the LA theatre company to a working actress for that same company. It’s hard for me to put into the words the gratitude I feel and it excites me to think about the potential for the future, not just for this project but for our wonderful state.